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Disturbing the Universe

Terry Lindvall
Visiting Lecturer

Photo by Philippe Antonello

 JIm Caviezel, who portrays Christ in The Passion of the Christ .

In 1898, Colonel Henry Hadley (converted from being a New York lawyer and a journalist) purchased a film copy of the Passion Play and took it to a wild Atlantic City for revival meetings. “Mark my words,” he prophesied, “these moving pictures are going to be the best teachers and the best preachers in the world.” In Australia, Commander Herbert Booth of the Salvation Army inaugurated the national film industry in the same year, primarily as a means to propagate the faith and minister to the poor through storytelling. The cinematograph was the “missing link” between the stage and the pulpit, adapting drama to religious use in a “safe, possible and sanctified way.”

About 20 years later in 1919, the Methodist Centenary in Columbus, Ohio, constructed a giant outdoor screen and projected films for thousands of ministers and lay people, inspiring many to incorporate film into their home and foreign missions—at least until the advent of radio.

Now, director Mel Gibson has translated his own Roman Catholic faith, his own passion, into The Passion of the Christ, a cinematic Stations of the Cross (with subliminal red dots marking each station, at least according to several of my students who saw them). There is little doubt that Gibson’s work is his public testimony to Hollywood, the gospel according to St. Mel, full of those peculiarities and flaws that any of us might have in communicating the Christian faith to our neighbors.

Above (or below) the buzz created by the New York critics about anti-Semitism, the shock felt in Hollywood that a religious film narrative should outgross all other R-rated films, the embrace given the film by a remarkably diverse demographic audience, and the debate over gratuitous violence and brutality, the film, in words once used by T. S. Eliot, “disturbed the universe.”

As such, it is best viewed as a handmaiden to the ordinary work of theology and preaching, of people of God taking the gripping images and sharing their critical and personal responses. Film, in and of itself, cannot fully evangelize or instruct, but it can open windows to the visions of other people and help us to look outside ourselves. As such, Gibson’s film, a religious epic in the style and theme of his Brave(sacred)heart, stirs the community of faith to share, argue, debate and engage one another about truths that matter. As such, the film does, as old Colonel Hadley envisioned, help us to become better teachers and preachers of the Word made flesh, of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As a postscript, I would echo a line director Alfred Hitchcock spoke to Ingrid Bergman when she was disturbed by a movie he had made: “Ingrid, it’s only a movie.” The Passion is only a movie, but it can provoke the conversations that we need to have with our neighbors.

Drawing a Bright Line

Stephen Chapman
Assistant Professor of Old Testament

What is the difference between cultural engagement and cultural accommodation? For me, this is an increasingly challenging question.

"Why do we as Christians need 'shock therapy' to feel our faith is real?"

On the one hand, I have felt a certain responsibility to see Mel’s movie—in order to have an informed opinion of it and to offer guidance to others. After all, Christians cannot afford to ignore contemporary culture and its influence. This movie has certainly been what everyone is talking about.

Yet on the other hand, I also think we Christians now take too many of our cues from wider society. Sermons that include illustrations from television shows or professional sports are sacrificing substance on the altar of “relevance.” The Passion of the Christ runs the risk of being the same thing in reverse—“Survivor” posing as a sermon.

In the end, I chose not to see it. I felt the greater need in my own life this Lent was to draw a bright line between the nurture of my faith and the commercialism and violence so prevalent in our culture already. The movie has been billed as a kind of “shock therapy” for comfy Christians, but actually exaggerates the violence of the crucifixion and abstracts it from the context of Jesus’ life. The New Testament does exactly the opposite on both counts.

Instead, I have found myself listening over and over again to Schubert’s Mass in G Major, especially its mournfully transcendent “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.” The more I hear them the more these words seem to sound the entire promise of the gospel: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Why is there not the same sort of enthusiasm at present for slow, contemplative Lenten reflection? Why do we as Christians need “shock therapy” to feel our faith is real?

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Spring 2004 Volume 3 Number 3 Duke Divinity School